Generations of UCLA students will salute Howard Suber for his 50 years of teaching on Friday in an event that the legendary film professor likens to the scene from “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer,” where the title character witnesses his own funeral.
“It’s one of my favorite episodes in fiction,” said Suber. “Where Tom and Huck are believed to have drowned in the Mississippi and they watch as the pastor gets up and everyone says these glowing things that no one said when they thought they were alive. I get to hear these eulogies while I’m still around too.”
At an age when many of his contemporaries have given up work for golf or other hobbies, Suber is still at it, teaching two courses this semester on film structure and strategic career planning. It’s been a remarkable run for a man who says he never intended to be a college professor. He’d made the trek out to California with the hopes of being a screenwriter before winding up in academia.
“I never planned to be a teacher,” said Suber. “When I’d tell people I was studying English in college they’d ask if I wanted to teach and I’d say that’s the last thing I’ll ever do. It’s a pattern in film, too. Just like in ‘It’s a Wonderful Life,’ the thing you never wanted to be is what you ultimately become.”
But he’s thrown himself into his work, mentoring thousands of aspiring filmmakers, writing books such as “The Power of Film” and “Letters to Young Filmmakers,” and serving as the founding chair of the school’s Film and Television Producers Program. He’s also kept in touch with the people he’s had in class, emailing them or taking a current or former student to lunch once or twice a week.
Friday’s event is being hosted by two former students, “Hitchcock” director Sacha Gervasi and “Soul Food” creator Felicia Henderson, and will include video testimonials from people Suber taught, making it a reunion of sorts. The gathering will feature an hour-long lecture from Suber during which he will examine the cultural legacy of five films — “Apocalypse Now,” “It’s a Wonderful Life,” “Casablanca,” “The Godfather” and “The Dark Knight.” His talk will investigate why certain films have a lasting impact, while other pictures that are initially popular leave an ephemeral imprint.
Film itself has changed since Suber began teaching in the 1960s. Studios are making fewer pictures, preferring to pool their resources around a select group of pricey superhero films and special-effects fueled blockbusters geared at global audiences. Instead, television programs like “The Sopranos,” “Mad Men,” and “Breaking Bad” offer the kind of thought-provoking takes on society and human behavior that allowed films like “Apocalypse Now” and “The Godfather” to endure.
Suber notes that every great creative flowering has an expiration date. Elizabethan drama lasted roughly as long as Shakespeare wrote and Greek theater barely made it to the century mark. Film may follow a similar life span.
“We are at the end of an era,” said Suber. “Every dramatic era comes to an end for various economic and political reasons. It’s not that people cease to be creative or that we don’t have talented people capable of making great films any more. … It’s just that when historians write about the second decade of the 21st century, they will talk about the flowering on television and they will be relatively silent on what is going on in film.”
Suber is still a fixture on UCLA’s campus, but that wasn’t always the plan. He retired 20 years ago, but has been invited back to teach each subsequent year by popular demand, winning awards for his classroom work in the process.
“It proves that if you show up, eventually they throw you a party,” said Suber.